Andrew Graves discusses how horror films are reflective of the time in which they are produced whilst delving into twenty-first century horror and its implications on Prevenge.
Let’s face it, with its rapid decline into idiocy, violent division and plague the twenty-first century thus far has been about as much fun as latter stage syphilis. Exhibiting all of its worst flaws with all the dumb pride of someone taking a blow torch to the one remaining bit of ice which is keeping the whole of mankind from sinking into watery depths, it has blundered its way into an uncertain future of TikTok showboating, environmental heat death and unavoidable nuclear catastrophe with all the charm and panache of an imbecilic Godzilla.
And yet, for all this, the horror film remains largely a thing of consistently enjoyable quality. Inspired by the last century’s death throes which bought us the best of Japanese scares and unquestionable modern classics like The Blair Witch Project (1999), which not only expertly reacquainted us with a sense of unseen foreboding but also redefined what film promotion could mean in the dawning age of the internet, the twenty-first century has supplied us with a steady run of well-crafted ever-changing chills and thrills. From The Babadook (2014) and Get Out (2017) through to the more sublime terrors of Ari Asters’ Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019), the modern horror movie has continued to creep its way effectively across an otherwise more disappointing landscape of franchises, sequels and remakes, offering us an array of challenging, surprising and superbly off-kilter moments of genuine imagination. Directors like Robert Eggers and Ben Wheatley, with The Witch (2015), The Lighthouse (2019) and A Field in England (2013) have been able to replenish old ideas about the supernatural and folk horror by giving us fresh, disturbing new viewpoints and unnervingly ambiguous cinematic nightmares. If the classic horrors of the 1930s and ’40s provided us with ways in which to examine our fears of death, bought on no doubt by the post-war devastation of two major conflicts, and the post-Classical horror of the late ’60s and beyond arguably reflected our fears of modern living, today the horror film seems to embody our current confused state, encompassing anxieties over technology, generational divides and a terrifying descent into an end-of-days scenario. Devastatingly bleak affairs like Martyrs (2008) and Possum (2018) in a sense seem to uncannily underline our nihilistic attitudes towards a difficult tomorrow, while the kinetic pace of Train to Busan (2016) explores our difficulties to control or understand the dominating forces of digital media, exploitative institutions and corrupt governments.
But for me, the standout horror movie of the twenty-first century so far has to be Alice Lowe’s Prevenge (2016). Written, starring and directed by Lowe when she was nine months pregnant and filmed within the ridiculous confines of an eleven-day shoot, Prevenge tells the story of Ruth, who, having recently lost her partner in a climbing ‘accident’, goes on a killing spree, taking out those whom she deems responsible for his death. The fact that the serial murders appear to be carried out at the behest of her unborn daughter give us a uniquely fresh take on one of the horror world’s oldest tropes – the monstrous child.
Unlike older twentieth-century devil kid films like Village of the Damned (1960), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or The Omen (1976), which either placed the focus on the child or the adult male or never once questioned the solemnity of motherhood, here Lowe presents us with a warts-and-all view of gestation, preferring to treat maternity as a form of body horror or mind control, where the terrifying concept of losing one’s self to another lifeform becomes a horrible everyday reality. And though Lowe brings much of her comedy experience to the project – she was after all a regular cast member of Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place on TV and starred in and co-wrote Ben Wheatley’s wonderfully acerbic Sightseeers (2012), the all-encompassing feeling one is left with after watching Prevenge is an odd kind of despondency. For despite its entertainment factor and its spot-on wit and social commentary it is an essentially tragic experience. Throwing out any prefabricated ideas of parental responsibility or stereotypical images of motherhood, Lowe weaves her violent revenge story around an acutely detailed character study. Much like the later Joker (2018), this is not so much a movie about personal growth as it is about disintegration. Ruth, as with Arthur Fleck in the latter movie, simply cannot fit comfortably or otherwise into the societal confines she finds herself in. Arthur and Ruth, in their respective stories, also leave us with doubts as to the validity of their viewpoints – both films lean heavily on the concept of the unreliable narrator. And yet, for all Ruth’s undeniable faults and disturbing homicidal tendencies, she feels real and out of step with normality, soliciting empathy, if not sympathy, from the viewer.
And while repeated viewing of many horror films can almost become comforting distractions to the woes and stresses of real life, Lowe offers us no such hiding place. Almost beautifully cruel with its razor-sharp take on misogyny and the more patronising attitudes toward pregnant women, it pulls no punches as it examines what being in that singular state can mean, with its temporary physical changes and life-altering connotations.
But above all, Prevenge is a stylistically impressive, expertly realised modern horror film, awash with colour-coded symbolism and wonderfully explored visual metaphor, laced with a down to earth kitchen sink humour and almost Ken Loach levels of sadness and bitterness, perhaps best summed up in Ruth’s rallying cry: “I am not grieving, I’m gestating.”
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